No, Negative Reviews Aren’t Really “Constructive Criticism” for the Author

Introduction

I am a big defender of negative reviews. I believe they are valuable to readers because people should be empowered to choose and purchase books they predict they will like, taking into the pros and cons of those books, presented by other readers. And I believe they are valuable to authors because the negative reviews bring balance to the positive ones; that is, no one trusts a book that has only 5 star reviews. At that point, it’s just marketing, and all the glowing reviews are meaningless. (I’ve written more extensively about that here.) In this sense, negative reviews are not “mean.” They’re actively helpful.

However, one strange defense I often see of negative reviews is that they are “constructive criticism for the author.” And this simply is not true.

Negative Reviews Are For Readers, Not Writers

First, reviews are not for authors. Many reviewers, whether bloggers, booktubers, bookstagrammers, etc., in fact spend a lot of time pleading with authors not to read reviews and to stay out of reviewers’ spaces. Too many authors react poorly to readers saying they didn’t enjoy their writing, and then they start insulting them online and things spiral out of control. But, also, most reviewers don’t review their own reviews as being addressed to the author in any way. The book is finished; the author isn’t going to change it. The review is just mean to discuss their own feelings, invite authors to say what they thought of the book, and maybe offer other readers insight into whether they think the book is worth picking up.

A Book Review Is a Different Genre From Editorial Feedback

Second, a book review and “constructive criticism” are entirely different things. I believe every reader’s opinion of a book is valid. Barring things like academic monographs, the intended audience of a book is the general public; the general public, therefore, should be able to “get” it enough to have thoughts about it. However, being a reader with an opinion, even an well-informed one based on years of reading and perhaps literature classes and other qualifications, is not the same thing as being an editor. A review with someone’s personal reaction to a book is simply not going to be worded the same way actual “constructive criticism” from someone like a developmental editor, a literary agent, or a fellow author would be.

For instance, if I am writing a book review, I might write something like, “The romance in this book wasn’t convincing to me.” I could be a bit more specific and say something like, “The romance in this book wasn’t engaging. The two main characters barely spoke to each other, and I wasn’t convinced they really knew each other.” Sure . . . an author might be able to do something with that statement (if, uh, they could actually revise the book and it wasn’t already printed and finished), but it’s still kind of vague. It comes down to the broad advice: Make the characters talk to each other more.

Someone who was actually trying to give constructive criticism the author could work with while revising, however, would likely be even more specific. What scenes should the characters talk more in? Is there a conversation that could be expanded? A specific place in the book a new conversation could be added? Should the characters meet earlier in the book? Should the whole middle of the book be revised so they go on a trip together instead of travelling separately? And is there something specific they could talk about? Is there a reason to believe they would bond over boating, and the author missed this opportunity in the first draft?

Conclusion

I’m not saying that book reviewers couldn’t give detailed suggestions like this. For example, some reviewers are, in fact, also freelance developmental editors and would have the expertise and insight to do this. However, they generally don’t because a book review is simply not “constructive criticism.” It’s a summary of the reviewer’s personal reaction to a book and perhaps a reflection on how they think other readers would react to the book; it’s not a summary of how, why, and where the book could be improved. A book review is a specific genre of writing, and its purpose is not to give writing advice to an author.

Briana

34 thoughts on “No, Negative Reviews Aren’t Really “Constructive Criticism” for the Author

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Exactly. They might get something out of a negative review, but it’s going to be more vague and more of the person’s personal opinion than anything else. I’d think the most useful feedback from reviews would be if something came up in A LOT of reviews. Like, “Oh, 80% of people thought the kissing scene was cringe-worthy. Maybe I should work on that in my next book.”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Liminal Librarian says:

    Good points. Authors just need to accept that not everyone will like their books. Readers have a right to express their opinions, and they don’t have to be nice about it. How many times does “reviews are not for authors” have to be repeated until this finally sinks in?

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Exactly. Even if an author COULD get something constructive out of a review, it’s not necessarily worded as nicely as it would be if the reviewer were actually addressing the author! I try not to be mean or snarky in my reviews, but I might write something like, “I was bored out of my mind,” which is not something I would say directly to an author!

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  2. Krysta says:

    I agree! In theory, an author could learn something from negative reviews. However, that is clearly very difficult to do without having an emotional gut reaction! After all, the review wasn’t written with the author in mind. It’s someone’s reaction telling someone else to buy or not to buy/to read or not to read, and it’s going to be written differently a person actively trying to offer constructive criticism, which may be more balanced and, as you point out, more detailed.

    In the end, authors really should not have to read reviews for feedback because they should already be getting that from their editor. If a reader can pick up that the pacing is uneven or that the historical fiction is not adequately researched, an editor should hopefully be able to do the same. Alternatively, maybe the author and editor already knew those things and decided they weren’t important. You can’t write a book to please everyone! Some people value historical accuracy more than others, for instance, and maybe the editor was happy to let that slide for whatever reason.

    In the end, the book is the book you wrote. Some people will like it and others won’t.

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  3. mistysbookspace says:

    I agree!! I write my reviews for other readers. I never tag authors in my reviews whether they are negative or positive however I do still think authors can take something from reviews and apply them to their other books but at the same time I don’t think they should be attacking someone for not liking their book. You can’t make everyone happy.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I do think there might be cases where an author could find something constructive in a review, but it would definitely have to be something applicable to a future book and not specific to the one being reviewed! And the reviewer probably isn’t wording the criticism as nicely as they would if they knew they were directly addressing the author.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mistysbookspace says:

        When I say something they could use in a future book I don’t mean anything really story specific I mostly mean like stuff that has to do with there writing style and stuff like that. And I agree when your writing a review you’re essentially writing from the heart so it could come across as not very nice.

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  4. Mary Daniels Brown says:

    You make a very valid point here: “reviews are not for authors,” they’re for readers. This distinction is crucial, I believe. I usually have both good and bad things to say about individual books, because nothing is perfect, but if the book leans too heavily toward the bad side, I probably won’t finish it. And I never review a book I haven’t actually read all the way through.

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  5. Maria @ The Character Study says:

    I completely agree with you. Reviews are, after all, subjective, and trying to construct them as an anything other than that is not productive. As a reader, I want to read reviews to know what others thought of the book, but I don’t care much for an extremely detailed and detached analysis of said book and the virtues of the author.

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  6. Veronica @ Little Corner Reads says:

    I really never thought about this but great points! I actually find negative reviews more helpful than positive ones. Knowing what readers liked and didn’t like about a book gives me a sense of whether it’ll be a story I like or not.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I find them helpful, as well, because it’s often easier to be more specific in a negative review about aspects of the book. Sometimes positive reviews are just, “Ah! I loved this so much! The main character is great! It’s fabulous! I’m squealing!” Which doesn’t actually give readers a lot to go on.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Izzy Lively says:

    Negative reviews help me determine whether I should read a book more than the positive ones. I choose a lot of books to read because of their negative reviews.

    I think authors should honestly hire a virtual assistant (perhaps actual book bloggers, even) to compile the positive reviews (anonymously or not) and then add a list of popular things reviews wished was better/didn’t like, if they truly want that. This way, they’re not personally going through the reviews as the author and instead are just getting the highlights.

    Mostly because book reviews are for readers. The only marketing purpose they should be used for is to fill publishers in on what books readers want to read so they can seek to publish more of those.

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  8. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yes I find this a really weird defence- especially because it runs counter to the most common defence a lot of reviewers (including me) use- which is that reviews are for readers. It’s implying you actually want the author to read the negative review of their work… which isn’t the intention for most reviewers! Besides, it’s kind of too late for constructive criticism and the style of a lot of negative reviews aren’t really the way someone would receive constructive criticism. I find it weird that someone would write a review with that intention.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Exactly! I wonder if some of the reviewers who say it’s constructive criticism aren’t really . . . familiar with constructive criticism or how it should be worded differently if they were talking directly to the author? Like, maybe they think any critique of the book qualifies and they aren’t considering they should probably be much politer about it if they are, in fact, directly addressing the author.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I find the idea that telling an author “how to improve their book” after it’s printed and published a bit silly. They’re . . . not going to revise it. And they probably DID already revise it 5+ times!

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  9. Karla says:

    This is such an amazing discussion post and i wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. Last year an author kindly sent me a copy of their book and while the premise was interesting I didn’t enjoy it and let him know. He proceeded to badger me with emails and questions about what could have been better and it made me frustrated because I am not their editor. I am a book reviewer and it was not my job to do that.

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  10. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I definitely agree with you. The only area where this gets a little grayer is with self-published authors. Since these authors have so much more flexibility with their books, they sometimes do take reader input into account. I actually had a self-published author once contact me about my review to ask me a bit about it—and she ended up revising the book!! (That was a VERY unusual circumstance, though – and I was doing developmental editing at the time, so I guess it’s nice to get extra confirmation that my feedback was useful!)

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  11. Katie | Doing Dewey (@DoingDewey) says:

    I agree with what you’re saying here and have a strong preference that author’s not read my reviews. I sometimes like it when an author just says ‘thanks’ for a good review on twitter, but any more than that and I mostly just find even a positive interaction with the author kind of awkward. This is especially if my review was anything less than 100% positive!

    However, I would say something like ‘reviews should be constructive criticism’. Your post made me think about what I mean when I say that though and I think I actually mean that reviews should be constructive criticism for possible future readers. The examples you gave for a romance review are things I’d count as constructive criticism, while personal attacks on the author or just saying you didn’t like a book and giving no reasons why aren’t things I’d consider constructive. I appreciate your post for making me think about what I really mean when I use that phrase 🙂

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  12. Louise @ Monstrumology says:

    I agree with you 100%! Reviews are for readers to share their views with other readers on a book and once the book is out there, “constructive criticism” is pretty useless. Sure, an author could see what readers liked and disliked and apply that to their next book, but reviewing and writing a novel are two different skill sets and not all readers are also writers.

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  13. Mary Drover says:

    It makes no sense to me why authors read reviews. It would be the absolute last thing I would ever think to do because authors will have already received the “reviews” they need during the writing of the book, so anything after that is just going to either inflate their joy or completely crush them. Why read negative reviews for something that you can’t change?

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